10 questions with Scott Esplin

Sponsored by BYU Studies—The city of Nauvoo is closely associated with the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the city has been home to different groups over time.

In Return to the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism’s Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo, Scott C. Esplin provides a social history of the Illinois city beginning in 1846. Esplin is a professor of of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional background?

I am professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and the publications director for the Religious Studies Center, also at BYU.  I joined the faculty of Religious Education in 2006.  Prior to teaching at BYU, I taught in the Latter-day Saint Church Educational System as a seminary and institute teacher.

My training and background are in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Church history.  I received a PhD in Educational Leadership and Foundations, focusing on educational history, from BYU in 2006.

What led you to become a teacher for the LDS Church Educational System in the first portion of your career?

My father was a seminary and institute teacher, so I grew up around the Church Educational System.  While I was aware of other professions, this was certainly the one with which I was most familiar.  I also have a brother who teaches seminary, so you might say this is the family business. 

Returning from a Latter-day Saint mission to Italy, I was given the opportunity to teach a seminary class and fell in love with it.  I loved (and continue to love) helping students discover the beauty and power of scripture and Church history.

Did any themes emerge in questions your CES students asked about church history in general and the Nauvoo period in particular? Do those question significant differ from or mostly mirror the questions of your college-age students?

The questions and themes about Nauvoo are largely the same, coming from Seminary, Institute, and BYU-Religion students, though there is certainly a greater depth to the questions from more mature students. 

Scott Esplin holding one of his daughters in front of the Navuoo, Illinois temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Credit: Scott Esplin.

Regardless of age, I find that there is a fascination with what occurred in Nauvoo after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. 

This leads to numerous questions about Emma Smith, the children of Joseph and Emma, and their involvement in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ). 

Students want to know what happened to the properties (especially the Temple or, if they know the story, the burial places of Joseph and Hyrum). 

Additionally, many inquire about the historical relationship between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ, including their differences in theology and practice.

When did you first realize that you wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge on the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Did you find the way you approached your study of church history changed when you consciously began preparing to research and publish?

I have had a love for Church history sites since my youth.  Growing up in the Midwest (two hours from Kirtland, Ohio) in the home of a religious educator, we visited each Latter-day Saint historic site. 

I associate some of my earliest religious feelings with Church history sites.  As a missionary in Italy, I was introduced to different religious traditions and their venerations of sacred space. 

I finished the writing of this manuscript while on a faculty assignment to teach at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. 

Scott Esplin and his family at the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Credit: Scott Esplin.

This experience deepened my love for pilgrimage and my sensitivity to ways sacred spaces are contested.  All of these experiences have shaped the ways I view religious tourism, pilgrimage, and contested sacred space.  They have deepened my love for these topics and shaped my writing about them.

At the same time, my doctoral studies introduced me to what I believe is an understudied period of our history, the early twentieth century. 

This was an era of significant transformation within the Church as we reversed the trend of isolation that dominated our nineteenth century history.  The acquisition and eventual development of Church historic sites is the story of reclaiming our past and inserting that story into a broader national narrative.

Introduce Return to the City of Joseph: Modern Mormonism’s Contest for the Soul of Nauvoo. When did you come up with the idea for a social history of Nauvoo and how did you team up with University of Illinois Press?

I was invited to research the topic as a new faculty member.  A colleague and mentor, R. J. Snow, had served as director of public affairs and manager of Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated during the reconstruction of the Temple.  Upon his return to Utah, he started exploring the idea of writing a history of the restoration of Nauvoo.  Tragically, he was killed in a car accident the year I joined the BYU faculty (2006). 

I was asked if I was interested in picking up the project, which eventually consumed more than ten years of my life.

The project originally began as a history of Nauvoo Restoration, the entity charged with developing the old city of Nauvoo on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

In exploring the story, however, I became acquainted with members and leaders of the Community of Christ as well as residents of Nauvoo unaffiliated with either faith. 

From those relationships, I learned that the story of Nauvoo’s restoration is really a story of faith and community relationships, of misunderstandings, contestation, and eventually cooperation. 

It is also the story of the effects of pilgrimage and religious tourism on a small town.

Finally, it is a story of transformation within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself across the twentieth century.

In what ways is Nauvoo the “city of Joseph”?

The term “City of Joseph” has multiple meanings as it relates to Nauvoo.  Of course, it is a historical reference to Latter-day Saint Nauvoo having been founded by Joseph Smith.  Additionally, it is his burial place. 

However, I use it also in the title of the book and in its contents in a modern sense. 

As the book discusses, Church leaders decided to restore Nauvoo into a memorial to Joseph Smith and, in the Church’s view, the work God accomplished through him.

In this way, Nauvoo has become, again, the city of Joseph.

What do you remember about your first visit to Nauvoo?

I have made so many visits to Nauvoo, it is hard to separate out my first.  In fact, I have gone enough times that I joke with my kids I am going to build them a playhouse out of the Nauvoo souvenir brick I pick up at each visit.

Scott Esplin defeats his daughter in the pioneer stick-pull game before the Nauvoo pageant. Credit: Scott Esplin.

I think my earliest memory centers on the temple lot and the outline, then in the ground, made from stones from the original structure. I find myself gravitating back to that site today, graced by the reconstructed temple, and marvel at the transformation.  I watch groups enter that building and am amazed at what Nauvoo has become, especially for Latter-day Saints.

At the same time, it is with some sadness that I drive around town, especially on Mulholland Street, and find shuttered shops and unfinished buildings.  I am impressed by the toll tourism takes on a small community that chooses it as a primary economic drive.  Or, in the case of Nauvoo, sometimes has tourism chosen for it by others.  It makes me wonder how I would feel if my hometown were suddenly transformed by descendants of a group that lived there more than a century earlier.

Explain the role of nostalgia upon the events described in the book.

Nostalgia plays several interesting roles in this book.  First, there is the nostalgia among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for Nauvoo, one of the most important sites in its history.  There is a desire to walk where Saints and prophets walked, to venerate at the tomb of their Prophet and Patriarch, Joseph and Hyrum Smith. 

There is some inner longing to place a finger in the bullet hole in the door of the room where they died, to look out the window where Joseph Smith fell to his death, and to ponder on their lives.

Scott Esplin and his children in the room where Joseph Smith died in Carthage, Illinois. Credit: Scott Esplin.

One could make the case that in doctrine and practice, the modern Church of Jesus Christ is the Nauvoo-era Church transported west more than a thousand miles.  There is something in the hearts of Latter-day Saints that seems never to have left this city on the bend of the Mississippi behind.

On the other hand, there is a nostalgia among longtime residents of Nauvoo for the city of their youth, one whose streets aren’t crowded by tour buses or whose sidewalks and shops are frequented by costumed characters from the 1840s. 

There is a feeling like a play is being performed in their town (in fact, historic plays are performed daily in their town) and yet they are no longer the central characters in the story.  Among some of them, there is a nostalgia for Nauvoo to return to the way it was before religious tourism came to town.

What affects does tourism by contemporary Latter-day Saints have on Nauvoo?

Tourism makes the experience in Nauvoo highly seasonal.  During the summer months, hotels, restaurants, and gift shops bustle. It feels like one faith takes over, and all others, including local residents, recede.  Labor Day, and especially its annual Grape Festival, feels like the turning point when Nauvoo’s permanent residents reemerge and the pace of life changes.

A visitor really should go to Nauvoo during both seasons to experience the effects of tourism on the local economy. I would recommend going during the Pageant to see Latter-day Saint Nauvoo at its peak, then again in the fall or winter to see a different look to Nauvoo.  I’ve never done it, but I hear the Bootiful Nauvoo pumpkin walk in October is fabulous.  Though it is very cold, I also really like bald eagle watching along the Mississippi River during Nauvoo’s winters.

The booms and busts of a tourism-based economy have also shaped Nauvoo.  The reconstruction of the temple in the early 2000s spurred speculation in tourism-related industries that appears unsustainable.  Grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels struggle to survive, especially in the off-season. 

Additionally, outside investors purchasing homes and transforming them into vacation rentals has changed property values and the tax base.  Local schools seem to have been impacted by a decline in young families. 

A scholar of tourism studies once called basing an economy on tourism a “devil’s bargain.” To me, this is a fascinating metaphor when applied to a town like Nauvoo that it rooted in religious tourism.

Tell us about the French Utopian movement that plays a role in the history of post-1840s Nauvoo.

This is another lesser-studied group in Nauvoo’s past. 

Following the general exodus from Nauvoo in 1846, a French Utopian group known as the Icarians learned of the vacant homes, farms, and especially the abandoned temple in western Illinois.  Moving up river from New Orleans in 1849, they acquired the properties and lived in Nauvoo for a similar length of time (approximately seven years) as the Latter-day Saints.

They even went to work trying to refurbish the Nauvoo temple, which had been gutted by an arsonist’s fire in 1848.  The building was largely demolished by a tornado in 1850, portending a similar fall of the Icarians a few years later.  They and their descendants are, however, one of several groups that left a mark on Nauvoo after the Latter-day Saints. 

Others include German-speaking immigrants that made Nauvoo one of the most German-speaking towns in Illinois, a group of Catholic nuns who operated a private boarding school in the city for more than one-hundred years, and members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ (now called Community of Christ) who continue to operate the Smith family properties in Nauvoo. 

All of these form the fabric of the story of Nauvoo.

Scott Esplin with his wife and daughter on the bank of the Mississippi River with the Nauvoo temple in the background. Credit: Richard Crookston.

What are two or three of the most significant developments in Nauvoo intercultural relations of the past 20 years? What are two or three of the most challenging obstacles yet to be resolved?

In my opinion, one of the most significant developments in Nauvoo intercultural relations of the past twenty years has been the flourishing of the relationship between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint and the Community of Christ. 

Operating rival historic sites in such close proximity, there was a time when a building war seemed to exist between the two groups.  For many years, Nauvoo’s restoration felt like a game of “anything you can build, we can build better.”  That slowed dramatically in the twentieth century, essentially ending with the reconstruction of the temple. 

Through the work of good faith and site leaders on both sides, cooperation seems to have replaced competition.  I compare it to family dynamics.  Sometimes siblings who squabbled as teenagers get along much better as adults once identities are established.  These two faiths cooperate really well today.

I believe another positive development is the focusing of the mission of the Nauvoo sites by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  While they certainly do introduce the faith and its beliefs to some visitors, the sites seem more directed toward building faith and testimony among visitors who are already members of the Church.  This is highlighted by the temple which, because of the requirements for entrance, is entirely focused on existing members of the faith.  Restored Nauvoo has become a place for those already within Church membership.

A challenging obstacle continues to be how to celebrate the many diverse stories that make up Nauvoo’s past. Efforts are being made to incorporate the Latter-day Saint, Icarian, German, Catholic, and rural America stories together, but finding a balance in what to emphasize is difficult. 

Additionally, blending “outsiders” and multigeneration residents is difficult, especially when tourism impacts sensitive areas like politics, religion, education, livelihood, and quality of life.  Local residents have long wished for a louder voice in the future of their community. 

Incorporating all of these stakeholders into developing Nauvoo’s future may be its greatest challenge.

This interview is made possible through the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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